Values and Principles

Most of us (myself included) have not understood the true meaning, nature, and application of values and using them to live a principle-centered life. In this piece, I want to explore what it means to live a life of values based on principles. Unless we do so, we’re not living effectively.

We all have values — things that are important to us, and that we do without conscious thinking. Having values is good. Having values based on correct principles is better.

Values are both the basis of who you are and the aspiration of who you want to be when you’re at your best. They are the aspects and qualities of you that you hold to be most important. We all have values, but sometimes we disconnect from being that person.

Your values are your roots. The more you’re clear of your values, the more you stay connected to your values and to what is most important to you. You might have to face tough decisions at times, but you can make those decisions authentically and in a sense of peace because you know what is true for you.

Values are what we have. Values are things we do. Values are things we practice and live by. Values guide our behavior and the actions we take.

Any group of people are united by having similar goals and values, be it a family, team, or an organization. Their goals are their Why. Practicing their values is what drives them toward those goals.

Values are also something that any group/community shares because they believe in the cause. They believe in the Why. It’s that thing that keeps them together. It’s their Why, their raison d’être for doing something that guides their choices and actions. Values are something that you stand for — something that you believe in strongly. It is the reason why you do things. Values are your compass. They guide you when the going gets tough.

Values are part of our internal system that guides our behavior, whereas principles are external. Values are subjective, personal, emotional, and arguable, while principles are objective, factual, impersonal, and self-evident because they are indisputable.

As Thomas Paine has eloquently written in Agrarian Justice:

An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fall: it is neither the Rhine, the Channel, nor the ocean that can arrest its progress: it will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.

Principles are universal truths based on natural laws. While our values govern our behaviors, principles govern the consequences of those behaviors. While values may vary from person to person, principles will always remain constant in the universe. In other words, even though we may have different values, they are governed by the same principles.

Principles are not values. While values are the maps, principles are the territory. The ideal is to always value the correct principles. The degree to which we recognize and live in harmony with principles determines if we’re moving toward living a principle-centered life or away from it.

Gandhi has said:

Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.

There are a few reasons why having values based on correct principles is paramount:

Because we know that principles always work, it only makes sense to have values that are based on principles. How else would we navigate a complex, multi-dimensional world? Values are maps that show us the path when we are in crisis. They are our compass in an increasingly complex world. They show us the direction when the going gets tough.

The external circumstances around us will always change. What we need is a changeless inner core that will remain the same at any given time. Values help you guide your decisions, actions, and behaviors. They help you keep your feet firmly on the ground when things around you get chaotic. This is not to say that your values will always remain the same — they’ll evolve with you over time, and that’s okay. Values are organic in that sense.

Values of some organizations reflect in their mission statements such as employees first, customers second, stakeholders third. When faced with problems, such organizations can use their value statements as a compass to show them the right path, which otherwise would potentially become increasingly difficult with the scale of the problem. Having such value statements in times of crisis makes it clear (but not easy) for these organizations to do the right thing.

How does the fact that organizations do it this way make it important? There is a big difference between knowing one’s values and practicing them. The language that we use has tremendous impact on what we do and/or how we do things. When organizations list their values as integrity, honesty, innovation, etc., they’re doing it wrong. They sound great, but don’t mean much because they are not actionable.

Principles are nouns, not verbs. You cannot practice principles. You can only practice values (based on correct principles). The problem with using language such as integrity, honesty, innovation, etc. is that they are principles, not values. They govern the consequences of our behaviors. You cannot practice integrity but as a value you can always do the right thing. You cannot practice innovation but you can always see the world from a different perspective. And that is the difference between having values passively and actually practicing them.

Having values is part of what makes us human. Although our values are part of what we do, we must not forget that who we are is much greater than what we do.

So how do we find our values? Well, we all have our own values in that we do things because we believe in them. We have values about everything. If you don’t know what your values are, look at your actions. They will tell you. Actions don’t lie. Our actions uncover our values. Our actions speak louder than our words. It’s not so much what we say, but what we do that defines our values. Over time, our actions/behaviors become our habits, which in turn become our values.

Values don’t have to be something “big” necessarily; it can be something very “small” and simple. The only criteria for something that qualifies as a value is that it’s actionable without you having to think about it. In other words, you do things without having to think about it. That’s how you know it’s a value. What are some things you do without consciously thinking about it? That will tell you your values.

Finding out your values is a good starting point, and should not be an end in and of itself. What you need to remember is to always value the correct principles. In other words, ask yourself if your values are based on principles. If they are not, what is needed to course-correct?

For instance, take some time to reflect on the values you can’t stand when you see them in others or yourself. The opposite of these values is a reflection of what you stand for. Choose the one that you believe you embody the least. What specific activity could you build into your life to close this gap? When our behaviors are aligned with our deeply held values, we feel better about ourselves and more connected with others.

We have values that guide our decisions. Things that are important and acceptable to us and those that are not. Unless we know what drives us, how can we even begin to understand others around us? That is not enough. Of course, the end goal is to have and practice values based on principles.

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